Tyke thesps find gigs galore

HOLLYWOOD — With the FCC’s mandate for more educational and family programming on network TV, and the last decade’s cable TV boom, it isn’t only programming for children that has become more popular in Hollywood. The employment of youngsters to star on such shows, and in films, has likewise become a growing trend. Of this fall’s new primetime shows, for example, ABC will have three new half-hour sitcoms featuring kids — “You Wish, “Hiller and Diller” and “Teen Angel.” CBS debuts “The Gregory Hines Show,” about the star’s relationship with his 12-year-old son, as well as “Meego,” about three kids who convince their father to install an alien (Bronson Pinchot) as their nanny.

On the WB, Shelley Long becomes stepmom to four boys in “The Kellys,” while four suburban Boston teens are the focus of “Dawson’s Creek.” WB also offers “The Tom Show” — as in Tom Arnold, who goes to live with his daughters after his divorce.

On NBC, “The Tony Danza Show” supplies Danza with two daughters, while Fox’s “413 Hope St.” depicts New York City kids escaping drugs and prostitution.

And that’s just the new network shows, to say nothing of kids on cable.

“Teen actors are so much bigger now than they used to be,” says Jeff Morone, a former child actor and agent at Innovative Artists, where his young clients include Thora Birch, Joey Mazello and Zachery Ty Bryan. “There has been a huge improvement in the 1990s. The cable boom has been a boon for kids. The trend is that there are a lot more big kids in the business. Before, there was Shirley Temple, and later, Macaulay Culkin, and the old mentality for everybody else was to throw them out there and hope they stick. Now there’s more marketing strategy, more attention to building careers.”

All facets of the business, including ancillary aspects, are beginning to reflect the upswing in child casting, from the nature and tone of the product, to on-the-set teaching guidelines, to production schedules to the selection of kid-friendly crews.

“As a producer, it’s all about putting people together on a set who are respectful of having a child on board,” says Jennie Lew Tugend, producer of the “Free Willy” movies and Trimark Pictures’ forthcoming “Starkid,” a science-fiction adventure for children. “You want to make sure it’s going to be fun for them, so you create an atmosphere conducive to their energy.

“You don’t want to be on the set with screamers who are counter-productive. And a must is getting a good studio teacher working with you and the kids. That can really add to a smooth production.”

That “protection” of the young actor often starts with the casting process.

“The first question I ask is: ‘is this your idea or did you come in because your parents wanted you to come in?’ ” says Laura Kennedy, a casting director whose films include “One Fine Day” and the upcoming “The Deep End of the Ocean” and “Shut Up and Dance.” “What I hate is the parents’ use of children without respect for the kid’s desires,” she adds. “We have to be delicate with these little souls and respect their desires.”

Marcie Liroff, who co-produced “The Spitfire Grill” and cast “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Poltergeist” and “Pretty in Pink,” along with giving Alicia Silverstone her first starring role in “The Crush,” concurs. “It’s a tough enough business as it is,” Liroff says. “People get swallowed up by rejection. Unless they really want to do it themselves, they’re not going to succeed. I don’t know if I would encourage my children to do this.”

Tracy Newman, a writing veteran of “Cheers” and “Ellen” and executive producer with Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Jonathan Stark of ABC’s new sitcom, “Hiller and Diller,” says that scripts are scrutinized more closely when words are coming from the mouths of babes.

“We’ll come up with stuff that will be funny for a kid to do, then think to ourselves, ‘Would I like my kid to do that?’ ” Newman says. “We’ll lose a joke that way. We’ll ask the kid’s parents if they mind. Kyle Sabihy plays a kid in our show who is a schemer and acts tough. Occasionally, he’ll say something to adults that’s not age-appropriate. If Kramer says it on ‘Seinfeld,’ it’s OK. With kids, you have to have consequences and followup.”

Conceptually, scripts are also changing to reflect the sophistication and precociousness of modern children.

“Kids don’t want treacly, easy sentiment,” claims Michael Reiss, executive producer with Al Jean of ABC’s new sitcom “Teen Angel,” about a high school sophomore who is killed in an accident and returns to be guardian angel to his best friend. “And of course, you want smart jokes to bring in the adults, too, like we did with ‘The Simpsons.’ We’re bringing you sharply observed stuff with things like unmotivated teachers and unpopular kids, things that teenagers can believe and know to be true.”

Newman agrees: “We sense a reality with kids that’s nothing like ‘Full House’ — too sweet, too goodie-good. We want to show a 14-year-old girl growing up too fast in L.A. with earphones and magazines and detachment and a parent trying to deal with that as best he can. The sophistication of the actors conveying the sophistication must be respected, too.”

Don’t talk down

“Kids are smart,” Tugend says. “These are young professionals who understand how movies get made. You learn quickly not to talk down to them. They’re there to do a job and they know it.”

The Screen Actors Guild is making efforts to see that child actors get the best possible education from members of the Studio Teachers Union. Indeed, a proposed regulation for studio teachers to hold both elementary and secondary certification is likely to soon be passed in Sacramento.

“During my high school years, if my studio teachers did not hold the secondary, single-subject high school credential, I would not have been able to maintain my grades, keep up with my classmates, and ultimately, not graduate (on time) with my class,” wrote actress Jodie Foster, later a Yale graduate, in April to H. Thomas Cadell, chief counsel of the state Department of Labor Standards and Enforcement, in a letter supporting dual certification.

SAG is also working to have movie and TV employment for child actors reclassified as an excused absence in California public schools. It is also drafting guidelines that will dictate when infants can and can’t be used in films and TV, says SAG spokesperson Catherine Moore.

The time issue

Because of SAG-imposed guidelines that dictate how long a child can be on the set, producers filming with children have to budget their time wisely. “We can’t have them past 10 p.m.,” explains Newman. “So you have to do some pickups early in the morning, and then you’re without the live audience.”

Morone sees the strictness of SAG’s policy as sometimes an extra expense for producers. “If the kid has worked his nine and a half hours and one final scene on a certain set will take an extra 20 minutes, he still has to go home and everybody has to come back the next day and reset the scene,” Morone says. “That’s costly.”

Keeping children happy on the set has become a requisite of some productions. Deborah Barylski, casting director for “Home Improvement,” recalls that in that show’s second year on the air, Windancer Prods. hired a recreation coordinator.

“They have to have somebody to play with and work off steam,” she says. “They need to be kids. They played hockey. Later as they got to their teens, they lifted weights and did a variety of activities to keep them interested and loose.”

Video gold mine

Citing the $77 million success of the Olson Twins’ video sales, Cleveland O’Neal believes that the straight-to-video market is ripe for more kids programming. As founder and CEO of Connection III Entertainment Corp., which is a production and personal management company, O’Neal’s efforts dovetail to Morone’s contention that more direct career-steering for young actors is in order. He produced two half-hour, straight-to-video musical comedy adventures called “The Garage Club,” featuring his clients — Ross Bagley, Travis Tedford and Camille Winbush.

“We as managers, saw the need to develop projects to sell and employ our talents,” he explains.

Increased training in general is also on the upswing.

“One thing we deal with is training,,” says T.J. Stein, owner of Academy Kids. “The child has to develop and maintain talent to take him or her beyond charm.”

“Commercially, there has always been work,” says Meredith Fine, an agent with Coast to Coast Talent Group, Inc. “But with TV and successful features such as ‘Free Willy’ and ‘Matilda’ being so successful, the box office gets better and better. So many projects are in the works. King World is doing ‘The Little Rascals’ again, for syndication. The video market is big. It’s never been better for kids in the business.”

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